NCAA, UF scrutinize diplomas

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 12:47 a.m.
Following reports that a former University of Florida athlete boosted his grades at a non-accredited correspondence school, UF President Bernie Machen said he's worried about other illegitimate high schools posing as the real deal.
"We have some indication that there are schools like this in other states, based upon the (Southeastern Conference's) review of it," Machen said Wednesday. "The only way this can be looked at is to see if it exists nationwide."
The New York Times reported Sunday that 14 athletes, including one from UF - Dane Guthrie, a former Killian High tight end - had quickly improved their grades at Miami-based University High before signing with Division I football programs. The UF athlete enrolled but then transferred to a school out West, Machen said.
Machen said he doesn't think the student ever participated in a UF sporting event.
UF also recruited another athletic prospect with a degree from University High, Machen said, but recruiters backed off when they learned of his dubious academic credentials. Machen said, emphatically, that there are no other students now at UF with degrees from University High.
"(But) suppose there's another one like that in Kansas," he said.
The NCAA is now forming a group of college and high school administrators who will recommend safeguards to the athletics association by June 1.
Patrick Herring, UF's interim director of admissions, will participate in the group. Herring expressed disappointment Wednesday that the NCAA didn't already have more protections against what are sometimes called diploma mills.
"It's kind of amazing the abdication that's taking place in this respect," he said. "The state doesn't want to deal with it, the NCAA doesn't want to deal with it. So by default it comes down to the university level to deal with it."
Detecting illegitimate high school transcripts isn't always easy, Herring said, particularly when diploma mills are mutating to avoid detection. UF, which now enrolls about 35,000 undergraduate students, first screens for suspect institutions in its database by looking for accreditation. Schools that don't have regional accreditation are flagged, and UF "reserves the right" to ask for more proof, Herring said.
In some cases, Herring said students may be asked to take an additional test to validate their academic credentials.
On the other hand, Herring said there are cases when UF admits a student from a non-accredited high school without asking for more information. A home-schooled student with a stellar SAT score, for instance, might be admitted without having to furnish additional information.
Herring said he's confident UF can detect subpar schools, but he concedes the system isn't perfect. Students sometimes apply to UF while attending a legitimate high school, and then they boost their grades at a place like University High during the application process.
"When it comes time to submit a diploma, all of a sudden we get a diploma from somewhere else," Herring said. "And obviously (we say) 'where did this come from?' That's when you start looking into those things."
Though news coverage has primarily been focused on athletics, Herring said the problem of illegitimate high schools extends beyond football fields and baseball diamonds.
"It's across the board," he said. "It's an issue that we deal with outside the athletic arena. Certainly athletics is caught up in it."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064.

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